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When is a Motorcycle Helmet Too Old?

When is a Motorcycle Helmet Too Old?

For all motorcycle owners, a helmet is an essential safety gear. In some states of America, helmet laws are quite strict, compelling riders to wear one every time they go for a ride. Some motorcycle helmets come with an expiration, after which they do not offer reliable safety even if you don’t wear them frequently. Most motorcycle helmets last up to five years after production. But if your motorcycle helmet does not feature a specific expiration date, should you continue using it for more than five years? This article aims to provide general guidelines that will help you determine when you should replace your motorcycle helmet.

1. Helmet Safety Standards in America - How It Started

Motorcycle helmet safety standards require helmets to be tested by placing an instrumented headform, a specialized testing device used in safety-related experiments, into the helmet. The helmet is then dropped on a rigid surface at a specified velocity. The shock transmitted through the helmet into the headform is then measured in terms of headform deceleration. Over the years, two helmet safety standards have predominated in the United States: the Snell Memorial Foundation’s safety standard and the US Department of Transportation’s Federal Motor Safety Standard No.218.

1.1 Safety Headgear - A Military Equipment

The government of the United States pursued helmet safety standards much later after the launch of the first production motorcycle, the Orient Aster in 1989. Earlier, only the military was involved in helmet development in the United States. In the late 1940s, the U.S. Navy was funding research into head impact at two universities. One research was conducted by Dr. C.F. Lombard. Lombard originated the use of expanded polystyrene (EPS) for helmet production, the same material that is still being used to craft liners in modern helmets.

At the University of Southern California, Lombard studied shocks applied to the helmeted heads of research volunteers and students. However, at this time, the transportation departments of the United States were not involved in the development of headgear for civilian riders and the formulation of helmet safety standards.

1.2 Beginning of Headgear Development for Masses

In 1956, William Snell died in an auto racing crash in northern California. Snell died of head injuries. However, medical experts believed he could have survived the injuries if his helmet didn’t fail to protect him. As a result, members and officials of the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) urged an investigation of crash helmet performance, which was conducted by George Snively.

1.3 The Role of Snell Foundation in Helmet Standards

George Snively’s research on auto racing headgear revolutionized the helmet industry. In 1957, the Snell Memorial Foundation, a non-profit, was incorporated to sponsor Snively’s research. Two years later in 1959, Snell published the first standard for helmets. In the 1960s, the Snell Foundation began to administer a helmet certification program. The standards of this program were so high that only the best helmets could pass. As more manufacturing companies managed to meet the standards, Snively would revise the test standards, making them even more difficult to achieve. Snively was dedicated to revolutionizing the helmet industry by creating a sense of urgency among the manufacturers towards creating the best helmet a driver could own.

From 1970 to present, the standard revision cycle was stabilized to five years. In 1985, the helmet standard was split into an “M” series for motorcycles and “SA” series for race bikes.

1.4 The DOT Standard

In 1972, the Government of the United States announced the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 218, a draft motorcycle helmet standard that was later known as the DOT standard. This new standard took effect in 1974. Now, the DOT standard is mandatory for all helmets.

1.5 Mandatory Helmet Certifications in the United States

All motorcycle helmets should meet the FMVSS-218 standard and be DOT-approved. The DOT mark must be present on the helmet. In addition, the U.S. industry certifications, including Snell and AMECA certifications, must be labeled.

2. Finding Expiration Date on a Helmet

Helmet manufacturing companies usually don’t mention a best before date or expiration date on the helmets. They only mention the manufacturing date, adhering to the guidelines of DOT FMVSS-218 Standard. This manufacturing date, which is usually present below the comfort liner, helps riders determine when the right time to replace their helmets is. The common recommendation is after five years after production. However, this five year figure is just a recommendation and not a rule.

The Snell Memorial Foundation published the five year motorcycle helmet replacement recommendation based on the consensus of the helmet manufacturing companies. Both the companies and Snell Foundation were of the view that resins, glue, and other materials used to manufacture helmets lose their effect over time, weakening the liner and reducing its shock-absorbing capabilities. Moreover, the body fluids, hair oil, and regular wear and tear may contribute to further damage. Exposure to spray paints, fuel, and harsh cleaning products can also affect the expanded polystyrene material used in helmets. It was also observed that after five years there is a significant improvement in the protective characteristics of the helmet. Advanced technology is employed to create helmets with better designs and reliable shock-absorbing capabilities. Even the manufacturing methods and standards improve significantly over a five year span. Hence, the recommendation.

3. How Reliable is Snell Foundation’s Helmet Replacement Recommendation

While the Snell Foundation is an organization dedicated to ensuring high safety standards for helmets, it has faced criticism for its standards in the past. Many believe that Snell’s helmet standards resulted in inner liners being too tough, which could potentially contribute to riders sustaining injuries despite wearing a helmet.

An article called  Motorcycle Helmet Performance: Blowing the Lid Off by Dexter Fordinitiated a debate that 2005 Snell standards were making helmets unsuitable for the vast majority of accidents. It was suggested that minor impacts were leading to serious brain injury and major impacts lead to death due to lack of impact absorption. A helmet that could remain intact in the event of an accident but failed to protect the rider was essentially useless. In 2010, Snell revised its helmet standards. And over the years Snell’s helmet standards have improved significantly.

Since research has proved that all of Snell's standards and recommendations are not always correct, many riders remain skeptical of Snell’s five year replacement recommendation even today. The fact that this recommendation was backed by helmets manufacturing companies has further raised questions on its veracity.

4. Is It Dangerous to Use a Motorcycle Helmet for More Than Five Years?

Naturally, helmet manufacturers would want riders to purchase more helmets. But is the five-year replacement recommendation merely a business tactic to boost sales or genuine advice aimed at ensuring road safety? After developing an understanding of the materials used in helmet production, you will be better able to decide whether or not to replace your helmet.

4.1 Motorcycle Helmet Foam Liner

The most important part of a motorcycle helmet is the foam liner, which is usually crafted from expanded polystyrene (EPS). EPS has excellent impact-resistance properties that reduce fatal head injuries. According to a PubMed study, expanded polystyrene is a stable material and does not degrade easily. According to a study by the University of Calgary and MEA Forensic:

“The impact resistance properties of expanded polystyrene foam used in bicycle helmet foam does not degrade with age.”

The age range of helmets used for this research was between 2-20 years. Hence, it can be concluded that the expanded polystyrene does not degrade after five years.

Moreover, bodily fluids, such as sweat or hair oil do not affect expanded polystyrene. However, certain chemicals, excessive sunlight exposure, and significant impacts can degrade the performance of EPS.

4.2 Motorcycle Helmet Cheek Pads

Helmet cheek pads are crafted from nylon and other materials, so they tend to wear faster than the foam liner. Worn out cheeks pads affect how a helmet fits. A loose fit helmet can be a huge safety concern. However, if the cheek pads are the only defect in your current helmet, simply replace the pads with new ones. You don’t necessarily have to replace the helmet if the liner and outer shell are intact.

4.3 Motorcycle Helmet Outer Shell

So long as the motorcycle outer shell is intact, you can continue using it. However, if the shell has deep scratches, stretch marks, or cracks, it will allow sunlight to pass through that will damage the EPS liner. It is a clear indication that your helmet needs to be replaced. Moreover, a cracked helmet cannot offer the protection you need in the event of a fall. Hence, it is crucial for your safety to invest in a new helmet.

4.4 Motorcycle Helmet Metal Fixtures

If the liner, outer shell, and pads are intact, then rusty metal fixtures may compel you to replace your helmet. Unfortunately, some brands are using cheap metal brackets with thin rust-proof coatings that wear off within a year. Unless you have bought a helmet from a well-reputed expensive brand, make sure you clean and maintain your helmet regularly to prevent rust. Otherwise you would have to replace the helmet.

5. When Should You Not Use a Helmet More Than Five Years

There are some requirements that your motorcycle helmet should meet if you want to use it for more than five years. These include:

  • Your helmet never had a high-impact crash that might have crushed the EPS liner. If you have been in an accident where you suffered a concussion, replace the helmet. Merely dropping your helmet on the ground is not a problem, but experts have mixed views on this. According to some experts, the impact of a drop on the helmet EPS can only be detected through interferometry or speckle interferometry testing. Therefore, it is best to replace it to ensure safety.
  • When riding to areas where helmet laws are relaxed, some riders tie their helmets on sissy bars instead of wearing them. Oftentimes, the strap becomes loose and the helmet falls off the bike with an impact. If such a situation ever occurs, make sure you replace your helmet the earliest possible. You can simply avoid this situation by carrying your helmet safely in saddlebags.
  • You never left your motorcycle helmet in the sunlight. Moreover, the EPS liner was never exposed to harmful chemicals.
  • You avoid placing your helmet on the fuel tank at the gas station during a fill-up. Petrol vapors tend to dissolve polystyrene. Though it will take a lot of fuel fill-ups to have a significant impact on EPS performance, over the years it can degrade the liner.
  • If you work in certain workplaces where there are a lot of chemicals, solvents, and electric engines running then make sure to store your helmet where fumes don’t reach it. Also, do not store your helmet in your garage, where it may be exposed to paint vapors, petrol vapors, and other fumes.
  • EPS is not affected by heat due to its low conductivity. Its properties do not change due to long term heat exposure, a maximum of 167°F/75°C. However, do not leave your helmets in direct sunlight and opt for helmets that are treated with UV inhibitors.
  • Avoid using hand-me-downs that date back to the 1970s. Old helmets didn’t feature premium quality EPS liners. 
  • Make sure to replace the cheek pads and inner liners so your helmet fits properly. Also, check your helmet for any visible defects. If you find the outer shell, resin coats, or adhesives failing, replace the helmet immediately.

6. When You Want to Buy a New Helmet

Replacing a helmet after five years is not a hard-and-fast rule that you must abide by. It all depends on the condition of your helmet and how well you care for it. Therefore, this recommendation should not force you into throwing away a perfectly functional helmet. But what if you want to change the helmet before five years? Many motorcycles like to replace their helmets only after a couple of years because they want to. They enjoy buying DOT-approved custom helmets with beautiful artwork or paint jobs. Some riders like to upgrade to a newer model because of its design features. As the years pass, helmets with improved aerodynamics and visor designs are available on the market. They not only offer optimal crash protection but also help reduce wind noise and allow you to communicate with other riders. Some new helmet models feature an optional auto-darkening visor. In addition, buying new helmets prevents you from missing out on some useful features, such as intelligent noise control, variable density liners, visibility displays, built-in cameras, crash detection, and emergency location broadcast. It goes without saying that modern helmets certainly improve Safety up to 90%. Therefore, if you want to upgrade, there is no need for you to wait for five years.

7. Last Words

From the above discussion, it can be concluded that the age of a helmet should not be the only reason to replace it. The five-year replacement recommendation by the Snell Foundation and manufacturing companies is not a mandatory requirement. Maybe that’s why the majority of manufacturing companies do not mention a specific expiration date on helmets. If you have invested in a helmet by a well-reputed brand, it will last more than five years without being a safety hazard. However, your helmet should meet the conditions mentioned above if you want to use it well beyond five years. But if you have been involved in a crash or you find the outer shell failing, then replace the helmet even if you have only been using it for less than a year.

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